Nobody expected the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz to be fighting for a playoff spot.
The Suns were supposed to be trending down behind an aging star and a crew of role players and the Jazz were supposed to be in their first official rebuilding year after trading star point guard Deron Williams last season.
Yet here both teams are, duking it out tonight in a game that will likely decide a playoff berth (well, except for that pesky issue of Phoenix needing to beat San Antonio, too).
To get some an inside perspective on the Jazz and tonight’s showdown, I traded emails with Clint Peterson from The Utah Jazz Blog. I answered some questions for him here.
Why are the Jazz so much better at home than on the road? Every year they seem to be two different teams depending on the venue.
With only one season of the last five over .500 on the road that is a perplexing query. You might say it was experience except for that. With one of the notoriously best home courts in the NBA with a supportive, raucous crowd, the disparity between home and road may be striking to the players. Maybe they simply lack the mental fortitude, a trait older, successful teams acquire.
What’s the biggest reason Utah is ahead of schedule this season competing for a playoff spot?
They’re really close, they have each others backs so they want to win for each other, make that extra pass, bring that help defense. Seasoned vet Earl Watson said this group of guys is closer than any locker room he’s ever been in and Al Jefferson said recently that they’d “die for each other.”
The Suns have already beaten the Jazz twice this season. What must the Jazz do differently tonight to prevent the series sweep?
Obviously, minimize how the pick-n-roll happens, starting on the perimeter. If you let an opposing ball handler of Nash’s quality dictate where the play goes you’ve already lost half the battle. And they have to put the effort in early, not wait til late like they did against the Orlando Magic the other night, when they buckled down and pulled away late. On the offensive end they need to continue to hit perimeter shots, of late led by Devin Harris who is shooting a career high from 3 this year. In the first two contests with Phoenix the Jazz hit 8 of 22.
Who are the players on Phoenix most suited to making you sweat in this most important, playoff-esque atmosphere and why?
Should the Jazz find themselves able to keep Nash and Gortat from dominating the paint, the player that seems to do the most damage keeping the defense honest was Channing Frye. If he’s not in there I’d expect Michael Redd and Jared Dudley to attempt to open up the lanes and the Suns’ offense in the paint for the former pair to butter their bread. Phoenix hit on 44 percent of 50 3-point field goals in the first two meetings.
It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that Alvin Gentry has found recent success rolling out a peaking-at-the-right-time Sebastian Telfair in the backcourt with Nash.
What players, doing what, are key to putting the Jazz over the top tonight?
It starts with Al Jefferson directing the defense, a new trick this “old dog” added to his bag a few weeks ago. That communication is key to helping their perimeter defenders effectively counter a determined offense by pushing them away from where they’re trying to be to set up a play. Failing to stave off the PnR with the starters Ty Corbin’s found a lengthy, extremely successful spark lineup that includes Gordon Hayward at the 2, Paul Millsap at the 3, Derrick Favors at the 4, and Jefferson as a capable last line of defense when given the tenacious help the three in front of him have given.
And gotta knock back those treys.